Bob Bronzan

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Bob Bronzan arrived at San Jose State in 1937, determined to make a difference. In the seven decades since, few Spartans have left a larger legacy.

Bronzan, a former SJSU football player, coach, professor and athletic director, died early Monday morning at his home in Lincoln of congestive heart failure and kidney failure. He was 87.

"He was a cornerstone of encouragement," said Dick Vermeil, who played for Bronzan at SJSU in 1956-57. "He believed in you more than you believed in yourself."

Former Spartan Al Saunders, the assistant head coach of the Washington Redskins, said, "He had such a hold on all of our lives. We were all fortunate to have known him and loved him.

"To me, he was San Jose State."

There are hundreds of current and former coaches at every level of football who can be linked to Bronzan -- he is best known for mentoring Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Walsh and Vermeil. Bronzan also was one of the first coaches on the West Coast to recruit African-American players.

But his vision and influence went far deeper than football. He built and maintained tight-knit relationships that spanned decades. In his home office sits a book filled with the hand-scrawled names and addresses of virtually every person who played for Bronzan or worked with him.

"He guided us to be prepared for life," said Joe Barrington, one of the 12 African-Americans recruited by Bronzan in 1955, breaking SJSU's color barrier. "He touched a whole lot of lives across all races and ages. He made people successful, and to him, that meant living a quality life and being responsible for your family."

It wasn't easy following the Bronzan plan. He set high expectations and standards for himself and everyone around him.

"He was tough as a pine knot," said his wife of 35 years, JoAnn. "But he was fair. He never would ask someone to do something he wouldn't do himself."

Vermeil said, "He kept the pressure on you. He had the ability to recognize talent in people and then helped you take advantage of it, but you had to work."

One of six children of Croatian immigrants, Bronzan grew up in Tehachapi, a working-class town near Bakersfield. He was a teen during the Great Depression and decided that education was his only opportunity to get ahead. After receiving his undergraduate degree at SJSU, Bronzan earned masters and doctorate degrees at Stanford.

"He had a great desire to learn," JoAnn said.

Bronzan also was a terrific athlete. He played tackle at SJSU in 1937-39. He was named an honorable mention All-American on the 1939 team that went 13-0 and remains the only unbeaten squad in school history.

Following a stint as a U.S. Air Force officer during World War II, Bronzan returned to SJSU in 1946 as an assistant professor and assistant coach on Bill Hubbard's staff. Four years later, at the age of 31, Bronzan became the youngest coach in Division I football.

Bronzan's teams went 32-30-5 in seven seasons, but his biggest impact came in 1955 when he recruited African-American players. It was not a popular decision at the time, but one that friends say Bronzan was driven to because he knew it was right. Because of his background, one of Bronzan's deepest passions was to provide opportunities to young men who otherwise might have none.

"Everybody has the same feeling for him out of respect and love for the opportunity," Barrington said. "He had a vision for what you could be in 10, 20 years, not just what you could do for four years and then you were gone."

It was also during this period that Bronzan earned the reputation as an offensive mastermind. Legendary Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy brought Bronzan to South Bend, Ind., for spring practices several times to help the Irish.

Bronzan ventured into the NFL in 1958, following Buck Shaw to the Philadelphia Eagles. But after one season, Bronzan returned to SJSU to resume teaching. In 1960, he was named AD, a position he held until 1972. He remained a professor at the school until his retirement in 1980.

"He said he never wanted to be a transient coach in the NFL," Saunders said. "He wanted to impact and influence student life, and he wanted to do that at a place he loved, and that was San Jose State."

Published in San Jose Mercury News on Dec. 11, 2006
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